Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finding the Funny in Murder

I write the quirky Vicky Hill Mysteries set in the wilds of Devon. Often, murder and humor don't go hand in hand so it's always a challenge to "find the funny" without plunging into farce. 

Last Saturday I deleted 10,000 words of the first draft in my new series. This was not funny. It wasn't so much a case of "killing my babies" - I was killing an entire nation. Did I mention I had only written 10,000 words? No, I didn't think so ... which means I am starting on page 1. Again. The reason? Nothing was funny. The protagonist was boring, the setting was dull and the writing was leaden. I was forcing myself to be "funny." 

So I started surfing the Internet about writing comedy. Research is an excellent form of procrastination. 

Harold Ramis suggests that many comedy writers are loners who develop a comic view of the world because they aren't caught up in mainstream thinking. I agree. I also discovered that it’s important to cultivate a sense of the ridiculous; perhaps be okay with all those embarrassing situations you've ever been in and maybe even masochistic enough to relive them. 

Sol Saks, the creator of Bewitched, knew how to write humor. I was fortunate to meet him and his lovely wife Sandy (an excellent writer), at one of their Fourth of July parties.  Sadly, Sol passed away earlier this year at the grand age of 100.  In his well-known book Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing he says, humor comes from conflict or misfortune. Which brings me to The Pea Incident.

When I was sixteen, I won a competition that meant I had to represent the town at various functions. ANYWAY, one day I had to attend a very stuffy lunch with local dignitaries. There were about thirty people seated at an enormous mahogany table. We had cut crystal glasses, silver cutlery and bone china—the works. We even had footmen. During the third course, my knife slipped and about a gazillion green peas flew off my plate, scampering along the table, jumping into wine glasses, landing in laps and hurtling down cleavages. To say I was mortified was putting it mildly. Being a self-conscious sixteen year-old, you can magnify the mortification by about a thousand.  

There was utter silence. No one said a word. Wait! No, I lie. There was a brief cough from one of the footmen just before he began painstakingly picking up one pea at a time between white-gloved fingertips and placing each on a silver tray. I didn't leave the house for months after that (just kidding) and I've never eaten peas again. 

I learned that character is 98 percent of comedy. Don't skimp on character preparation before starting a new book. Give your characters idiosyncrasies, weird habits and unusual afflictions. Maybe introduce a deaf cat. Be authentic. Remember that your own true sense of humor is unique and will always be your single greatest asset. 

Look around you. Real people and the absurdities of every day life are the richest sources of comedy. Take it from one who knows. Now … I just need to throw in a dead body—preferably someone who choked to death on a plate of peas.


Rick Blechta said...

I've occasionally told the story of starting my novel, Cemetery of the Nameless, with a completely different protagonist and a plot involving Beethoven's Tenth Symphony instead of a violin concerto.

My character, a struggling composer and part-time taxi driver, was a miserable human being. For some reason he was always whining and complaining, and no matter what I tried, he just wouldn't stop. Even a stern lecture only resulted in a few thousand words before he started in again.

Realizing that I would wind up killing him off long before I got to the end of my story, I faced an insurmountable problem: it was also being told in first-person.

Sighing mightily as I chucked about 30,000 words of deathless prose, I went back to the beginning, hired an old character from an earlier novel – even though I knew should could be difficult at times – and the rest, as they say, is history.


I'm with you, Hannah. I never eat peas, either. Now I know why.

hannah Dennison said...

Rick ... I LOVE THIS STORY. You are hilarious but of course, I can absolutely share your pain. It takes a brave person to kill off a protagonist (especially in the first person). Believe it or not - your tale of woe has inspired me completely. I'm afraid I'm just about to do the same to mine. As you say - sometimes when things aren't working - it's time to jump onto another galleon. Thanks!

Donis Casey said...

I have three or four false start novels waiting in the wings for the day I am struck by brilliant solutions and can bring them back to life.

Hannah, I had a very similar experience at a dinner when I bit into a cherry tomato and squirted cherry tomato innards completely across the table. There was a moment of silence before my dear husband said, "Jackie Kennedy would never have done that." I burst into laughter as did everyone at the table and the day was saved. Americans love it when somebody makes a fool of herself.

I hope to see the Pea Incident in a future Hannah Dennison novel.